Rapid response: Officer's mindset, tactics should have changed when George Floyd went from 'man resisting' to 'man down'

As this incident leads the news, it is imperative we identify lessons we can apply to training, policy and community relations

What happened: Four Minneapolis police officers were fired Tuesday afternoon by Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo for their actions or inactions in the May 25 arrest and death of George Floyd, 46. It is reported that officers were dispatched to a forgery in progress, found Floyd in the driver’s seat of a vehicle and that Floyd resisted arrest.

Widely circulated bystander video shows an officer kneeling on Floyd’s head and neck. Floyd, who was also suspected of being “under the influence” is heard complaining of not being able to breathe while bystanders question the officer’s actions, as well as Floyd’s signs of life.

Why it’s significant: Tuesday evening was the first of what could be many nights of protests in Minneapolis and beyond that will put officers, civilians and property at risk of harm. Each new release of information, from officer body-worn camera videos to other bystander and surveillance camera videos to the autopsy report, will be covered by the media. Ongoing reporting, investigation and litigation is likely to further harm the department’s reputation and lead to community distrust of police.

Protesters gather near the Minnesota Police 3rd Precinct Tuesday, May 26, 2020, in response to the death of George Floyd in police custody.
Protesters gather near the Minnesota Police 3rd Precinct Tuesday, May 26, 2020, in response to the death of George Floyd in police custody. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via AP)

Top takeaways: Only a few people have a full accounting of what happened Monday evening. The quick firing of the four officers, without a thorough identification and investigation of evidence, might have been warranted, but it also might prevent the department from interviewing the officers to identify any gaps in policy, training and supervision that led up to the incident.

I have been unable to find video that shows how Floyd went from being handcuffed and seated next to a building, to Floyd being prone on the pavement. Presumably, additional videos will give a frame-by-frame account of the incident. The Minneapolis Police Union has asked the public to hold judgment until all evidence is released and a full investigation has been completed.

Meanwhile, because this incident is leading the news, engaging elected officials and policymakers and leading people to protest in streets, we have an obligation to begin understanding and discussing the incident and identifying lessons we might apply to training, policy and community relations. Here are my top takeaways.

1. The “full story” is a mirage

The admonitions of “wait for all the facts” or “don’t rush to judgment” encourage us and others to hold off on the unknowable becoming knowable. Having the “full story” is rare and most public safety work is done without the full story. Public safety personnel are trained and expected to work in uncertain and unpredictable circumstances. Just as we might respond to calls of a “crime in progress” or “man down,” then use our assessment and investigation skills to reduce uncertainty and lower risk, we can begin assessing this situation to understand it, seek out additional information and develop a plan for our own work.

2. Correlation rarely equals causation

Additional video evidence, toxicology and autopsy results will give more insights into the cause of Floyd’s death. It is too soon to know if the officer kneeling on Floyd harmed him. We don’t even know the amount of force being applied to Floyd and research has brought into question that prone positioning is a risk for asphyxiation. But kneeling on the head/neck of a person complaining “I can’t breathe” isn’t a treatment for respiratory distress. Don’t make the actual problem or the perception of the problem worse.

3. Bad apples spoil the rest of the bag

Every business has high-performers and poor-performers. An effective training, supervision and evaluation process should seek to identify and improve the bad performers or transition those poor performers out of the organization.

When I throw out rotting apples from a bag of apples, I always notice that the rotten apples have begun to spoil or infect the apples adjacent to them. The rotten apples, the poor performers, in any organization do significant damage to the people they work with closely.

Although we do not know of the record of officers involved in this incident, good or bad, don’t discount the spoilage they might have caused to those they interacted with. A culture that tolerates poor performers will constantly have to salvage new hires and partners that come into contact with the bad apple and are usually in constant damage control mode with members of the public who had a sour interaction with the bad apples.

4. Buddy care is second only to self-care

If Officer Chauvin, shown kneeling on Floyd’s neck, had been shot in the leg with severe bleeding his partners would have rushed to save his life by eliminating the threat, applying a tourniquet and rapidly transporting Chauvin in a patrol car to the nearest hospital. In this incident, fully knowing it was being videoed with bystanders encouraging action, officers stood by as Chauvin put his career at risk. He was in an unsafe, career-threatening situation but his fellow officers let him keep digging a hole instead of saving him.

I haven’t seen video of an officer saying to Chauvin, “Hey we got this. Let’s get him up and in a car.” Chauvin seemed to freeze, and his buddies needed to care for him and in turn care for the arrestee.

[Watch: Gordon Graham outlines the importance of taking action when you see another officer using force that you know is unreasonable.]

5. Emergencies are dynamic

Tactics need to adapt or evolve with the emergency. This incident transitioned from a “man resisting arrest” to a “man down” without any perceivable change in tactics. Officers either ignored or were so task-focused they couldn’t hear the narration of bystanders that Floyd was no longer moving and seemingly not even breathing. Floyd’s treatment as a “man resisting” continued through placement on the ambulance stretcher.

A bystander who identified herself as a Minneapolis firefighter yelled at the officers to check Floyd’s pulse while she continued to film the incident. The other officers needed to advise a course correction or intervene because Floyd needed first aid and got none.

6. Train and learn

Yes, we don’t have the full story. Yes, the rush to judgment will hamper the investigation and put officers at risk. Yes, it is frustrating that civilians don’t understand the challenges of law enforcement or appreciate the danger of being a police officer.

But we need to learn from this incident, review department policies and deliver relevant training. It should not be surprising that any use of force will be recorded by the public and those videos could be distributed and analyzed while the suspect is still on the scene. You can both blame Floyd and defend the officers, but you also need to ask and prepare yourself for what you would do in a similar situation.

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